For Fuel Cell Success: Pick the Proper Metal

A key shortcoming of the modern fuel cell is the amount of energy wasted as part of the effort to create alternative forms of power. Enter Case Western Reserve University chemist Alfred Anderson, PhD, who argues the answer to this conundrum is a simple swap: replace the problematic part of the electrochemical reaction— platinum—with a more appropriate material.

remove platinum from fuel cells

“Using platinum is like putting a resistor in the system,” he says.

Rather than continue the futile effort to tweak platinum to alleviate its shortcomings, his colleagues should start anew, Anderson says. His analysis and a guide for a better catalyst were published in Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics and in Electrocatalysis online.

The most widely accepted theory on why platinum hasn’t lived up to its full potential as a catalyst blames impurities binding to the platinum surface and blocking the desired reaction, which leads to the inefficiencies. Not so, says Anderson, who stresses the problem lies in the platinum itself.

“The decades-old surface-poisoning explanation is lame because there is more to the story,” he says.

Anderson acknowledges he doesn’t know the right material, but is confident researchers’ energy would be better spent searching for it rather than persisting with platinum and platinum alloys. He and his team are exploring alternative catalysts as well as an alternative reaction pathway in an effort to increase efficiency.